Outdoor early learning and play

Published: 5 June 2020

How can the scientific community assist with Scotland’s greener vision of child development, health and wellbeing?

Published 5th June 2020 

By Anne Martin, Paul McCrorie and Avril Johnstone whose research focuses on the impact of outdoor nurseries on the health and wellbeing of children, families and communities. 

In recent weeks we have seen a heightened interest in outdoor learning and play as politicians and scientists assess how to open childcare settings in a way that keeps children, childcare staff, and the wider community as safe as possible. COVID-19 presents significant challenges to us all. We must keep two metres apart from anyone not from the same household and maintain strict hygiene. A difficult task for vigilant adults, let alone a 4-year-old child whose priorities focus on mastering their artwork, building a fort and immersing themselves in the adventures of the Gruffalo. Evolving evidence suggests that COVID-19 is less likely to spread outdoors, and the outdoors provides children with more space to physically distance and play with sticks, leaves and stones rather than sharing toys, which may reduce transmission of the disease. 

In Scotland, utilising outdoor space is becoming common practice in our childcare settings. As highlighted in recent articles published by The Guardian and The Conversation, Scotland is leading the way in the UK by promoting outdoor learning and play with growing numbers of full day and partial outdoor childcare provision. This expansion is, in part, a response to Scottish Government policy that aims to increase free childcare from 600 hours to 1140 hours per annum in 2020 and increased outdoor provision is key to achieving this policy . In light of COVID-19, Scotland’s emphasis on outdoor learning may provide a safer return to childcare and reduce parental concerns.   

Young children playing at river 

Whilst there is growing interest on outdoor learning and play as an opportunity to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our childcare settings, we must continue to present the potential benefits of early learning as a way to improve children’s health, wellbeing and development more broadly. Research has suggested that when children spend more time outdoors, particularly in nature, they sit less and move more. They engage in diverse play independently and with friends that develops their fine and gross motor skills as well as improving their resilience and prosocial behaviour as they navigate the varied environment around them. They also develop an affinity to nature that enables them to make more sustainable choices and become more environmentally aware as they mature.   

However, much of this evidence focuses on older children in primary or secondary school rather than younger children under the age of 5 years and is often based on perceptions and/or correlation (i.e. links between exposure to the outdoors and health). Although this evidence is important to identify the possible benefits - or harms - of outdoor childcare on young children and childcare staff, this type of evidence is less robust to informing important policy and practice decisions.   

More powerful research designs will allow us to explore whether outdoor learning and play is as good as, or better than traditional childcare. With careful consideration and planning, rigorously designed studies can also inform on what, how, when and why any possible outcomes are improved. This type of research is vitally important as it provides a platform to look at outdoor learning and play in a wider context, which we call a whole systems approach. This approach recognises the importance of multiple levels of influence on child health and well-being, including individual differences (age, gender, personality), social relationships (e.g. parents and practitioners perceptions, attitudes, and modelling behaviour), community level factors (e.g. social capital), institutional factors (e.g. childcare centre management), and the physical environment (e.g. access to outdoor space). 

Our approach 

Here at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, we are developing a programme of work that looks exactly at this. We have one overarching question: 

  • What is the impact of outdoor learning and play on the health and wellbeing of children, families and childcare staff? 

Having started in summer 2019, our goal was to add novel and robust Scotland specific research over the next 5 years to the growing evidence base through a whole systems approach that brings together benefits and risks for children, families, childcare staff, and the Early Learning and Childcare sector including relevant local and national government policies.

Children and outdoor nurseries 

Rachel Cowper, Thrive Outdoors Programme Manager at Inspiring Scotland says: 

“Currently, full outdoor childcare provision makes up less than one percent of all childcare here in Scotland, meaning there is huge potential for expansion in this area. By working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Glasgow, Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council, it will help us and the wider sector to not only understand the impacts of outdoor learning and play on children, but also the broader impacts it has as a whole on the health and wellbeing of families and the childcare staff. We hope the findings from this important and timely research will result in more children, families and childcare staff thriving from quality outdoor learning and play provision in Scotland. 

This whole systems approach that considers the multiple levels of influence on young children will enable us to: 

  1. Inform ongoing decision making at both local and national level. 
  2. Advise on the national scale up and implementation of outdoor learning and play including supporting best practice. 
  3. Identify and mitigate any potential risks/key challenges within the different levels. 
  4. Contribute to the scientific, policy, and practice evidence gaps. 

In summary, during COVID-19, outdoor learning and play can support a safe and effective return to childcare for young children. However, it is important that we focus on the potential wide-ranging benefits, risks, and challenges, of outdoor childcare on children’s health and wellbeing and its wider impacts on families and childcare staff. 


First published: 5 June 2020